White House officials call for renewal of anti-terrorism law

Bush administration officials on Tuesday criticized the "misinformation" that has proliferated regarding the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act.

Bush administration officials on Tuesday pushed for renewal of the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the USA PATRIOT Act and criticized the "misinformation" that has proliferated regarding its provisions.

The PATRIOT Act applies "old tools to a new threat," Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, said at a panel discussion sponsored by the Heritage Foundation. Before its enactment, "cultural walls and legal impediments" often stymied government and law enforcement officials, he said.

The statute applies to many things that are "over and above what's heard in the debate now," Hutchinson said, citing background checks of drivers who transport hazardous materials and the creation of an electronic system to track international students studying in the United States. The law allows many things but has safeguards critical to protecting civil liberties, said, calling it "an important tool that should not be that controversial."

There is an "outright misrepresentation" of how the law works, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said. The details often are challenging and burdensome for people to master, but "we cannot cram on the PATRIOT Act," he said. "It's smart, essential."

Many of the more objectionable provisions have been in place to some extent since the 1980s to pursue drug dealers, Comey said.

Roving wiretaps, which enable agents to continually monitor a suspect even if they dump one cellular telephone for another, prevents that "period of darkness" officials had when they had to obtain permission to tap the new cell phone, he noted.

Similarly, the "sneak and peek" provision, or delayed notification for search warrants, took an existing statute and "put it in black-letter law," Comey said. "It's an ordinary, smart tool and is way too important to the security of the United States to do away with."

Another essential tool allows government officials to access library records, Hutchinson said. If Mohammad Atta, a hijacker on Sept. 11, 2001, "had intent to commit a terrorist act, he might have used the library to communicate," Comey said. He also noted that "there is a layer of court order" that deters indiscriminate access.

"It's good to question government," Comey said. "It's incumbent upon government to explain how we're using our power."

"We take very seriously concerns about privacy. It's paramount," said William Fox, director of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "If we do not maintain confidentiality, it really threatens the whole regime."

Fox touted the benefits of PATRIOT Act language that authorizes information sharing with the finance industry. "Money doesn't lie," he said. "It's hyper critical to be able to share that information."

Advanced technology, however, is key to making more effective information sharing a reality, he said. "We need systems that can talk with one another and exploit data," Fox said. "It's all about information [and] can all be done without further legislation."

William Bennett, co-director of Empower America, brushed aside PATRIOT Act criticism, calling that criticism "good fundraising fodder" for the American Civil Liberties Union. He said even Democrats have praised the law.